In an AP wire report out of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a hard of hearing 107-year-old man barricaded himself into a room with a weapon. The police dispatched a SWAT squad. One of the cops, Sgt. David DeFoor, who shot and killed centenarian Monroe Isadore, had been placed on administrative leave but not charged with a crime. The evidence was that the elderly Mr. Isadore had a memory problem and was in a confused state as one would expect of someone over a hundred years old.
The death of Mr. Isadore may be a peek into the bleak future for the elderly in a law enforcement system that is a cross between Robocop and the Terminator. What if instead of being shot, Monroe Isadore had been sent to prison? That is the kind of question a novelist asks in a case like this one. Mr. Isadore’s death started to wondering about the old people who are in prison.
We are living longer and there is evidence that becoming older is not necessarily becoming wiser. What does it mean for the elderly to live in an age of quasi-militarized police forces armed to the teeth with armored carriers adapted from the battlefield? There may be more cases like this, if America’s lack of coherent policies to fund the care of the elderly and mentally illed means, by default, the SWAT team being dispatched to put the old man out of his misery.
Laura Sullivan in 2005 aired an NPR program on America’s elderly prison population. She interviewed 93-year-old John Rodriquez. He wasn’t the oldest prisoner she found in an American prison. That honor went to 99-year-old Ivory Lee Johnson (New Jersey), followed by 98-year-old Burt Jackson (Utah), and 95-year-old Michael Moreno (Illinois).
These men had a record for crime and a record for longevity. I suspect that Monroe Isadore will go down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest man ever to be shot by a police officer. Had he survived the shooting, it would have surely captured the oldest man behind bars.
America has a knack for establishing the world record for imprisoning or shooting old men. Britain comes into the competition a miserable distance behind with a 78-year-old sex offender named Reginald Davis whose criminal record dates from 1949.
In the case of crime, most reports include photographs of young men who have been arrested or who are wanted.
While most crimes historically have been committed by the young, as the population in most places ages, the prospect of the elderly breaking the law and being imprisoned has been increasing. In the 2005 NPR report on elderly prisoners in America, it was noted that “California’s central repository for elderly inmates looks like a cross between a nursing home and a hospital. . .There are no guards, no guns, no locked doors, just nurses in pastel uniforms and inmates in hospital gowns wandering freely in wheelchairs. Many have thinning gray hair and old tattoos long-faded under wrinkled skin.”
The number of prisoners over the age of 55 is the fastest growing population in federal and state prisons. It is much worst in the American southern states (where Mr. Monroe Isadore was killed) where the average elderly prisoner population increased by a staggering 145% between 1997 and 2007.* This is during a period where crime has generally decreased. Another factor that will over time convert prisons into long term nursing facilities is the huge number of prisoners serving life sentences. The ACLU in 2012 reported that elderly inmates have climbed 1300% since the 1980s.
The trend of more elderly in prison runs counter to the general trend of declining U.S. prison population. The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates a downward trend overall in the last three years ending in 2012.
Human Rights Watch has reported “that the number of sentenced state and federal prisoners aged 65 or older grew at 94 times the rate of the overall prison population between 2007 and 2010. The number of sentenced prisoners aged 55 or older grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population between 1995 and 2010.”
Human Rights Watch makes the point that prisons were never to serve as geriatric wards. They were built to house young, healthy prisoners. Times have changed and prisons are increasingly facing the problems of a nursing home but without the facilities, staff and training programs to deal with the problems of the elderly. The prisons, like the police, don’t seem to be dealing with the special issues that effect the elderly who are “frail, have mobility, hearing, and vision impairments, and are suffering chronic, disabling, and terminal illnesses or diminishing cognitive capacities.”
To look after the needs of the elderly increases the expense of maintaining and running prisons. With the privatization of America’s prison system, where the corporation is cutting costs to return a profit to shareholders, this seems an unlikely model for financing the special needs of old prisoners. For example, would the corporate prison company fund a budget for eye glasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, pacemakers, hip replacement, false teeth and other age-related expenses? To give you an idea of the difference between the cost of incarceration by aged, The New York NGO Committee on Ageing has found that “In general a younger prisoner costs about $22,000 per year while an older person can cost as much as $65,000 per year.”
The numbers of the elderly in American prisons will continue to explode over the next seventeen years. “By the year 2030, there will be upward of 400,000 elderly prisoners — nearly a third of the projected total penal population, said Inimai Chettiar, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the co-author of the ACLU report.”
It is easy to see how the treatment of elderly prisoners can become a human rights issue. I’d also encourage you to read the ACLU report which is an comprehensive review of the problems raised by the growing elderly prisoner population in the United States. The large numbers of all prisoners, including the elderly are the consequence of what the ACLU calls the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies of the 1980s and 1990s.
Here’s a video on the root causes behind the elderly prisoner problem.
With nearly 675,000 elderly arrested in the United States every year, this problem isn’t going away any time soon.
As for Monroe Isadore, he may be the first in a long line of old men who are killed by SWAT teams. That is one sorry way to save the cost of incarceration. When a country demands other countries respect the human rights of their citizens, that country might start by showing respect for the dignity of its own elderly citizens.
If you are looking to break into the novel writing game, you might consider a series featuring an elderly private eye who accepts cases to help the old who find themselves in trouble with the law. I predict that it would be a best seller.
* The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows in 2012, states with the highest imprisonment rates included Louisiana (893 per 100,000 state residents), Mississippi (717 per 100,000 state residents), Alabama (650 per 100,000 state residents), Oklahoma (648 per 100,000 state residents), and Texas (601 per 100,000 state residents).